The number of inmates incarcerated before trial at Two Bridges Regional Jail has been a concern spoken of repeatedly at Lincoln County Board of Commissioners meetings.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley voiced her concern about the same topic in her State of the Judiciary speech Feb. 24 and announced the formation of the Task Force on Pretrial Judicial Reform to reduce the number of pretrial inmates in the county jail system.
District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau and Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wright attended the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, March 3 to discuss numbers and speculate on causes for the disproportionate amount of prisoners incarcerated before trial.
Of the 177 inmates held at Two Bridges on March 3, 116 inmates had either not been convicted or were awaiting sentencing. Thirty-one of those pretrial inmates were from Lincoln County. The remaining 85 were from other counties.
Wright noted that the superior court is meeting in Wiscasset after a four-month hiatus, which is reducing the number of pretrial inmates with felony charges at Two Bridges. In two days, approximately 20 felony cases were resolved through pleas, Wright told the commissioners.
Maine Pretrial Services, which recently took over pretrial services from Volunteers of America, is also picking up steam and becoming more effective in processing prisoners, Lincoln County Sheriff’s Maj. Ken Mason said.
The superior court schedule is set by the chief justice, Rushlau said. In April, Lincoln County will move to a unified criminal docket, which will merge district and superior court cases into a single docket – a change which may result in court meeting more frequently, Rushlau said.
Rushlau also said he hopes to see an increase in the number of grand juries in Lincoln County, noting that many with felony charges wait months before being indicted for a crime.
Rushlau and Wright noted many pretrial inmates held at Two Bridges were on bail but had bail revoked for failing to comply with the conditions. They were unaware of any examples from Lincoln County of inmates held for extended periods of time due to failure to pay court fines, a topic the Task Force on Pretrial Judicial Reform intends to address.
Wright told the commissioners the district attorney’s office goes above and beyond to enable the release of prisoners that do not pose a public safety threat, especially for female inmates with high-risk pregnancies. “It’s not justice and it’s not a good use of our resources,” Wright said.
Wright also said many inmates are held after conviction but before sentencing because the inmates have substance abuse or mental health issues and the district attorney’s office tries to sentence them to a treatment facility rather than jail, so they receive the help they need.
The number of those beds, however, is limited, and many prisoners must wait for an extended period of time before one becomes available.
A small percentage of prisoners held at Two Bridges for extended periods of time before trial or sentencing are serious public safety threats and not eligible for bail, Wright said, noting cases that involve attempted murder and sexual assault, amongst others.
Rushlau and Wright agreed to meet with commissioners regularly to keep them apprised of the efforts of the district attorney’s office to reduce the number of pretrial inmates at Two Bridges.